Tips for Beating OCD, Anxiety, and Perfectionism: Break Down the Boxes
The past few weeks have been some of the most transformative I’ve ever had in my recovery from OCD. They haven’t been particularly easy weeks, but of course I never expected this journey to be easy. I want to share some insights I gained from a massive breakthrough I experienced recently, in case others who struggle with OCD might find them useful. I’m not sure, but I have a feeling this might also be of value to folks who are perfectionistic or have a tendency to worry. But because I am speaking from my experience with OCD, I’ll address OCD directly.
(Disclaimer: I am NOT a counselor and this is NOT scientific. This is just an analogy that has helped me lately. If you’re an OCD sufferer and it’s useful to you, wonderful; if not, please ignore me and listen to your therapist instead.) :-)
I realized recently that there are two “arenas” in the fight against OCD…
The first “arena” is the obsessive worry itself. This is the specific content of obsessions and the specific compulsions they spark. For example, in my life, I’ve been obsessed with religious purity, and an accompanying compulsion has been to confess to “sins” (both real and imagined — mostly imagined) repeatedly. In therapy, I learned that the way to beat OCD is to block my compulsive response — so that if I am worried that I have sinned, and feel compelled to confess in order to be “clean,” I must resist the urge to confess. The more I resist, the less I feed the obsession, and eventually the urge itself weakens.
The second “arena” is the worldview in which the worry can exist in the first place. The OCD mind tends to see things in extreme black and white. There is little room for nuance or subtlety. To use my religious purity example, when my religious obsessions were at their very worst, I sincerely believed in an interpretation of the gospel that said that I needed to be basically perfect in order to merit the love of God. I believed that forgiveness was “earned” through works of righteousness. As soon as I let go of those beliefs and adopted a worldview that says that grace is a free gift that cannot be earned, my compulsions to confess vanished. I no longer believed in a world where I had to “merit” salvation, thereby rendering the obsession irrelevant.
Think of it this way.
Your worldview is a box:
Your obsessions and compulsions (or worries and perfectionistic tendencies) are moving particles inside it:
The tighter and more narrow your box is, the less space the particles have to occupy. Therefore, your obsessions and compulsions will be more frantic and furious. The wider and more expansive your box is, the more space the particles have to occupy. Therefore, your obsessions and compulsions will be slower and more manageable.
And what happens when you eliminate the box all together?
The particles can’t be contained. They scatter completely.
While the box exists, the symptoms exist. And they’re tricky little devils, morphing and changing to adapt to whatever box they’re in. But when the box is gone, they are free to fly away.
Here’s an experience that I hope will illustrate what I mean.
A couple of years ago, I had frustrating OCD symptoms surrounding email. I couldn’t send an email without re-reading it 50-70 times — especially personal emails. I worried that I would lose friends and loved ones if my emails were poorly-worded.
I fought the battle in both arenas:
First, I refused to allow myself to read and re-read the emails. I set a timer, gave myself 5-10 minutes to write an email, took a deep breath and hit “send.” Even if I wasn’t ready.
Second, I consciously reminded myself that even if I sent the most poorly-worded email in the world, it wouldn’t ruin my relationships. People don’t stop liking you because you send a lousy email. The worldview itself was flawed. The box was too narrow.
Over time, by waging war in both arenas, I began to form new pathways in my mind that allowed me really believe that email isn’t something to get worked up about. The box broke down. I no longer spent hours worrying about emails.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of my journey. I found that while I had broken down one box, it was contained within another box; which was contained within another; which was contained within another. But because I’d had success before, I continued to work at breaking them down one-by-one. I gained more space and freedom. The particles still fired, but they became slower and slower.
Finally, I got to the very last box.
I was surprised to discover that it was built from solid titanium. The particles ricocheted off it with shocking force, picking up speed like they hadn’t since I’d started dismantling the very first boxes. I was taken aback, but looked closer. I saw that it was labeled: I need a box to be safe.
This final box, if I may speak crassly for a moment, was a bitch to destroy. Breaking it down hurt worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.
After all, I’d spent my entire life trying to fit things in boxes. I’d tried to fit my faith in a box. I’d tried to fit my loved ones in a box. I’d tried to fit myself in a box. I’d believed that as long as I could contain the world in boxes, I could manage it. Forget how tiny and confining the boxes were. Forget how my insistence on living in a boxed-up world hurt me and those around me with excessive, painful demands. My mind screamed: I need my boxes! My boxes make me safe! I can’t live without my boxes!
Until I realized: yes, I can.
That was the breakthrough I spoke of at the beginning of this post: yes, I can.
This isn’t a world of boxes at all! It’s a world of endless expansion, of eternal progression, of chaos and beauty and freedom and grace. I don’t need boxes to be safe. The world itself is safe…even when it hurts.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that boxes aren’t useful. Sometimes you need to move stuff from one spot on your journey to the next — and a box is a great way to do that. The difference is that now I am empowered to choose when and how I use them. More importantly, I see them for what they are: tools for helping me make my way in the universe. Not the universe itself.
Does this mean my OCD is “cured”? I don’t know. Already, over the past handful of weeks, I’ve seen a dramatic reduction in symptoms, though there are lingering traces every now and then. Maybe there’s another box I’m not seeing yet. Maybe there are some stray particles flying around in a holding pattern, because they haven’t quite gotten the memo that they’re free to go now.
Either way, this model has helped me articulate and make sense of what I’ve experienced. I offer it in hopes that it might help others, with this word of encouragement to those struggling with OCD or perfectionism:
The only way to get to the last box is by destroying all the other boxes. You must tear them down one by one. It’s a gradual process. Don’t get frustrated. Don’t give up. The slow pace is actually a great mercy.
I know how much you want to be free. But a person can’t jump all the way to destroying that last box until the others are out of the way. You’d hurt yourself if you tried. So take it slowly. Give yourself grace. Celebrate every time you tear down a box and move it aside.
Remember: you are worth whatever it takes to get well.
(If you are struggling with OCD, please see my books recommendations page for 5 books that helped transform my life and made a dramatic impact on my ability to successfully manage my OCD. If you would like to reach out to me about OCD-related issues, you are welcome to email me at katie_in_logan [at] yahoo [dot] com.)